Voices from the Soteriological Margins: Theology and Soteriology in the Old Testament

December 6, 2016

Why the Old Testament?

So where should we begin our discussion of biblical soteriology?  It isn’t a trivial question, for if there is one good thing that postmodernity has taught us, it is that where we begin will have a disproportionate influence on where we end up.  I would like to make two proposals on this question.  One will elicit no surprise and very little controversy; the other may provoke at least a little of both.

I propose that we begin by grounding our soteriological reflections in the person and work of God.  This seems only natural, since it is God who has taken the initiative to make salvation available to humanity.  I further propose that we begin our explorations in the Old Testament.  Some may wonder why we would begin there, given that the New Testament is the final authority on matters of soteriology.  

Truth be told, some might argue that the New Testament has replaced the Old Testament as the only proper source for our soteriological propositions.  It is important to remember, however, that the writers of the New Testament treated the Old Testament as the repository of divine revelation.  It is certainly true that Hebrews 1:1-4 presents Jesus as God’s final, complete, and authoritative revelation of Himself.  John 1:18 makes a surprisingly similar point.  But the earliest Christians—to say nothing of Jesus himself—understood the Messiah’s work explicitly within the framework of images and ideas presented in the Old Testament.  Indeed, the whole notion of a Messiah would have been unintelligible without the spiritual and intellectual resources provided by the Old Testament.  As such, we would do well to pay attention to the theological and soteriological framework that Israel’s Scriptures provide for us.

God Is a Saving God

2 Samuel 22:2-4 (NRSV) attributes the following words to King David as a summary of his experiences with God.

“The Lord is my rock, my fortress, and my deliverer,

3     my God, my rock, in whom I take refuge,

my shield and the horn of my salvation,

   my stronghold and my refuge,

   my savior; you save me from violence.

4 I call upon the Lord, who is worthy to be praised,

   and I am saved from my enemies.”

It is not unusual for biblical writers to discuss the topic of salvation.  The root that stands behind both the noun for “salvation” and the verb for “rescue” or “save” occurs more than 200 times in the Hebrew Bible.  It normally refers to the experience of rescue from some physical threat (as in when Moses rescued the seven daughters of Reuel in Exodus 2:15-21), but these examples of physical rescue were often signposts pointing to a spiritual reality.

That spiritual reality is interwoven into the fabric of Israelite history, and it is the foundational assumption of our present text.  God is a saving God.  The unifying narrative of the Old Testament (and, yes, there is a unifying narrative) is that God is at work in the world to rescue a people for Himself, and it is through this people that God intends to bless all of humanity.  This narrative—on a smaller scale—plays itself out in the lives of specific individuals.  Joseph, Ruth, David, Hezekiah, Jeremiah, Daniel, Esther and many others find themselves in difficult situations.  In most cases, they explicitly cry out to the Lord, and even when they do not (for example, Ruth and Esther), their actions demonstrate that they have placed their trust in Him.  God rescues them, and others benefit from their rescue.

We Need to Be Saved

It is no wonder that Israel—and, later, the church—used this cycle of trouble and rescue as a central element in its theological reflections.  Have you ever wondered why we as Christians use a word like “salvation” to describe the process of becoming a Christian?  There is nothing inherent in the acts of sacrifice and forgiveness that would suggest the use of such a term.  And, yet, that is how we describe it.

Perhaps it is because we realize, deep down in our soul, that we need to be saved.  We may not always know from what.  We may not always see the connection between our situation and sin (ours or someone else’s).  We may not always recognize how enslaved we are to the evil that resides in our hearts.  But we know that we need to be saved.

A Conceptual Framework

God is a saving God—which is a good thing, since we need to be saved.  This is the conceptual framework that Christianity has inherited from the people of Israel, and it is the conceptual framework that must shape our soteriology.

So, why is this important?  Isn’t this something that we take for granted?  We probably do, and perhaps that is the problem.  Salvation, by its very nature, is more than a mere legal transaction.  When we call people to be saved, we are calling them to more than the fulfillment of a prerequisite for divine acquittal.  We are calling them to participate in something that is much bigger.  We will have to explore more of Scripture to find out for sure what that something is.

Moreover, the framework that we have inherited from the Old Testament emphasizes that it is God who does the rescuing.  We do not rescue ourselves.  The implications of this point go well beyond giving credit where credit is due.  We need to do that, but we also need to recognize that, since God is the one who rescues, God is also the one who defines what it means to be rescued.  We tend to conceive of salvation in ways that we think will benefit us, but, as we will see, God often has a much bigger agenda in mind when He sets to work on us than we could have ever imagined.  Understanding God’s agenda will better prepare us to understand exactly what our part is to be in the salvation process.

Share Your Insights

Now it is your turn.  In the “Comments” section below, share your insights on how the Old Testament’s theological framework should impact our soteriology.

Comments

3 responses to “Voices from the Soteriological Margins: Theology and Soteriology in the Old Testament”

  1. […] Last week, we used passages from the Old Testament to argue that there is a deep and insoluble connection between God’s nature and His requirements for those who wish to be saved.  We also saw that God is a saving God and that humans need to be saved. […]

  2. […] So where should we begin our discussion of biblical soteriology? […]

  3. […] express the essence of what Jesus wanted to communicate, both in response to the question of which Old Testament command is most important and in response to the question of how eternal life is obtained.  As […]

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